The craziest story you never heard
Story and illustration by Wayne Bledsoe
When Manchester, New Hampshire, police responded to an emergency call on Feb. 26, 2009, they witnessed something they never had seen before and surely never had imagined: Three frightened workers at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise were stripping naked in order to urinate on each other. Inside the restaurant, the fire alarm was going off, and sprinkler and fire-suppression chemicals were spewing into the kitchen and dining room.
But this wasn’t an isolated incident; it was part of a bizarre crime wave that terrorized its victims and resulted in millions of dollars in damages at restaurants and hotels across the United States and Canada.
The Kentucky Fried Chicken workers were the victims of a group named Pranknet, sometimes called Prank University. The group, which was identified, along with many of its members, by the online news site The Smoking Gun (www.thesmokinggun.com), took the classic phone-prank scenario into criminal territory. Members of the group delighted in humiliating victims and causing as much destruction as possible, with an audience listening in and often recording the mayhem.
It’s the craziest story you’ve never heard, and the tendrils of it stretch into Knoxville. It’s also a lesson about the power of persuasion and the instinct to follow authority.
The trail of destruction began making the news at the beginning of 2009 and continued throughout the year.
On Feb. 10, a guest at the Best Western motel in Skillington, Pennsylvania, was awakened by a call from a man who identified himself as the motel’s front desk clerk. Telling the guest that there had been a dangerous gas leak, the caller convinced the guest he needed to break out a window in his room. The “desk clerk” was joined by his “supervisor,” and after some convincing, the guest indeed used a chair to break out the window. The caller further instructed the guest to break the television screen with a toilet lid because, he said, the electrical charge from the television might cause an explosion. Afterwards, the guest was told to throw the television out of the broken window, which he did. The two then convinced the man to alert friends in the next room to do the same. They complied as well.
On Feb. 19, the call and the result were repeated at a Best Western motel in Santee, California.
On April 30, Prejean’s Restaurant in Lafayette, Louisiana, received a call from a man pretending to be a representative of the health department. The caller convinced the restaurant manager that the business’s pork was contaminated with swine flu. The manager followed instructions by closing the restaurant and telling the diners who might have been exposed to the dangerous disease about the situation.
Possibly the most destructive and ludicrous prank occurred on May 27. A call came in to the desk clerk at the Hampton Inn in York, Nebraska, and used the group’s then-typical “gas leak” ruse, but upped the ante considerably. By the end of the exchange, the clerk had set off the fire alarm and the sprinkler, broken out windows and turned off the electricity in the hotel. The climax, though, was convincing a hotel guest that, to prevent worse damage, he would need to back his semi-tractor trailer truck into the front door of the lobby. The incident caused more than $100,000 in damages.
Pranknet visited Johnson City, Tennessee, on June 5, when a caller convinced the desk clerk at a Comfort Inn to set off the fire alarm and activate the sprinkler. However, the caller did not convince the clerk to commit any further destruction.
On June 6, the group pulled the same stunt again at two different hotels on the same night. One was a Comfort Suites in Gadsden, Alabama, and the other was a Holiday Inn Express in Conway, Arkansas.
It was this latter incident that caught the attention of reporters at The Smoking Gun. I spoke with the site’s editor/writer William Bastone on Aug. 7, 2009, about the site’s Pranknet story.
“We had seen either a local story or an AP [The Associated Press] story that talked about this crazy incident at a hotel … some insane, crazy story,” said Bastone. “What we do is post police reports, mugshots and law enforcement memos, so we called the cops in Conway, Arkansas, and they sent us the police report and the evidence photos, and we did a story about this crazy hoax. Then we almost immediately became aware of similar pranks that had been happening across the country – and had been happening for months and months – involving restaurants and fast food joints and people in hotel rooms. And we became fascinated with it.”
The Smoking Gun previously had broken the story that acclaimed author James Frey had fabricated large chunks of his bestselling book “A Million Little Pieces,” but it rarely took on large projects because the site has a staff of only three people.
Still, it didn’t take Bastone and his cohorts long to identify the group and its leader Tariq Malik, who went by the online name “Dex.” They monitored Pranknet chat rooms where participants discussed recent pranks and future plans. They even got Malik to agree to an interview, as he was sure they could not identify who he was. Yet not only did they identify him, Bastone and a fellow reporter traveled to Windsor, Ontario, Canada, where they staked out Malik’s home for two days and attempted to interview him in person.
“He hid in his bedroom,” said Bastone. “I interviewed him for about an hour on the phone at the very front of the reporting process, and I think by the end of the conversation, where we were heading is not where he wanted to go, and there was no further contact with him. He didn’t return emails and we’d send him an instant message and he blocked me from sending him instant messages. … We tried to see if we could get him to come out of his apartment and … he hid in the apartment with his mother.”
Other Pranknet participants were equally confident that they were untraceable.
“One of them, who I interviewed over his Skype connection, was telling me, ‘Oh, you’ll never find me. No one can find me because I’m a ghost in real life, and I’m a ghost on the internet.’ They don’t envision that there’s someone out there trying to trace their electronic trail and applying good old-fashioned reporting skills to figure out who these kids are. All of them seemed surprised when I was dialing a phone number in their home and their mother was picking up. … So much for the ghost thing.”
One participant, a Knoxville woman who went under the online name “Jericho,” had a moment of clarity after the Conway incident. Although her real name is easily found in other internet reports, BLANK agreed not to use her actual name in this story.
“My main part in the group is I gave them money for computer programs, links and servers – things like that,” says Jericho in a recent interview. “I mostly called pharmacies. I’d make fun of the pharmacists. I went to Florida for a while, and during that time they were doing all the hotel pranks. I came back, and they were talking about ‘epic’ pranks.”
Jericho doesn’t pretend that she didn’t participate in mean-spirited pranks. She cursed and humiliated victims over the phone. A widowed mother and Navy veteran, Jericho was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome.
“I can’t say exactly what made me do it,” she says. “I felt like my mind and my life were out of control, and I wanted to escape from that. I needed a laugh, and I couldn’t laugh at normal things, so I laughed at horrible things, cruelty. I wish I could go back because I’d change it.”
It was an “epic prank” in which she convinced a man to set off a sprinkler in his hotel room that woke her up.
“I was in a room [online] with DTA_Mike, Tariq and an English guy who said he was from Manchester. The prank was supposed to go that there were bedbugs and they needed to get rid of the mattress.”
Others in the chat room typed suggestions for Jericho to read.
“When it got to the point where we were transferred to the occupant of the room, I was reading the text of what to do, and it said, ‘Make him check the fire sprinkler.’ Other people on there said, ‘Make him remove the red plastic piece.’ So I said, ‘Remove the plastic piece,’ and then I hear the sprinkler go off, and I hear him screaming, and he’s very distressed and upset. I hung up. Until I heard the distress in that man’s voice, I didn’t realize what I had done. That’s when it clicked.”
Her fellow participants kept calling her to rejoin the group, but she wouldn’t answer.
“The next day I called the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and they sent out two people, and I talked with them. They said they’d call me back, but they never did. It turned out that the guy who had been in the room was on probation, and instead of going back to jail, they’d made him pay damages. Two weeks later, I turned myself in to the Veteran’s Administration and told them what I had done.
“They talked to me about post-traumatic stress disorder and told me it was part of reckless behavior and put me in a PTSD program. I’m on medicine now, and I feel better about myself. Everybody who was pranking was alone. The internet is like a world for people who are lonely to live in. I was lonely and angry.”
In apparent retribution for Jericho giving information to authorities, she was harassed by former Pranknet associates, and her real name was used in later pranks, including one identifying her name as a (male) rapist loose in a hotel.
If you were to assume the Pranknet victims simply were stupid or gullible, Jericho explains that that isn’t the case. The group used the same tactics traditionally used to control people, whether it be individuals or an entire country’s population. Pranknet victims include an Iraq veteran paratrooper and an ESPN reporter.
“We used their fear to change their alertness,” says Jericho. “People would say, ‘I hope this isn’t a joke.’ Part of them knew that was a possibility. Most of the time, though, they were terrified and acted out of fear. If you’re acting out of fear, anyone will follow anyone who seems like an authority, be that they’re in a uniform or whatever, you’re going to listen to them. If someone calls you at 2 a.m. and says, ‘There’s a gas leak, wet some towels and put them under the door,’ you’ll do it.”
Part of the group’s success had to do with being familiar with the alarm and sprinkler systems with which they were dealing. Pranks sometimes would be planned for weeks. Callers would pretend to be from the company that sold the equipment or from a hotel or restaurant chain’s corporate office. The callers would build up the actions slowly and often had more than one “authority” giving advice.
“People don’t realize when they hear about this that it would be more than one person on the line,” Jericho says. “Someone would say, ‘They need to break out a window,’ and a person would say, ‘My supervisor says you need to break out a window.’”
Listen to the recording of the incident at the KFC in New Hampshire (available on YouTube), and you’ll hear the “authorities” on the other line sounding increasingly credible as they up the destructive ante and then “help” the victims correct whatever had gone wrong.
She said Malik, in particular, could be charming and would call hotel desk clerks telling them he was tech support, thus gaining access to the hotel computers. That way he’d know names, check-in times and even credit card information for the guests. According to The Smoking Gun, during one period, Pranknet would have calls for particular businesses rerouted to Skype phone accounts which the group controlled.
Unlike traditional phone pranks, such as what late Knoxville legend John Bean (sometimes known as the “Real Lee Roy Mercer”) would pull, Pranknet’s activities were not harmless.
“It was humiliating and demeaning and cold-hearted. I was going right along with all of it. I did until I heard that man who set off the sprinkler,” says Jericho.
In one elaborate prank, a man at a hotel was told by a caller that there had been a hepatitis outbreak reported at the hotel and that he would need to provide the desk clerk with a urine sample to take to a medical lab. At the same time, a call to a female desk clerk had her agree to taste test a new variety of apple juice. The caller then delighted in telling his victim that she’d sampled the man’s urine.
One member of the group would target women, advertising toys or children’s items on Craigslist. After gaining their addresses, he would tell them that he was going to rape them and kill their children.
Some participants that The Smoking Gun tracked down had criminal histories, and two of them had records that included sexual offenses against children. The internet offered anonymity. Even Jericho had no idea what Malik looked like or that he lived with his mother until she saw The Smoking Gun’s report:
“When you’re on a computer with someone, it’s your own imagination. You believe what the person is telling you about themselves. Why shouldn’t you? Why would people lie?”
What is most surprising is how few Pranknet participants have been arrested.
Shawn Powell (online name “Slipknotpsycho”), who convinced workers at an Arby’s in his hometown of Baytown, Texas, to break windows and turn on the fire extinguishers, was charged with criminal mischief (a misdemeanor) for his call. James Tyler Markle (online name “Prankster”), served six months in prison for similar incidents at a McDonald’s in Lufkin, Texas, and a Wendy’s in Gretna, Louisiana. He also was the individual responsible for the urine/apple juice prank.
Jericho is surprised that legal authorities didn’t take Pranknet more seriously.
“I talked with two agents on two different occasions, and they never once asked to see my computer,” she says. “I had already unhooked my computer and was prepared to give it to them.”
In fact, with charges that generally fall into the categories of criminal mischief and vandalism, prosecuting offenders is not a top priority. Although Pranknet’s peak seemed to be from 2009 to 2011, the group still on occasion is credited for incidents, whether or not the original members are culpable.
Jericho says one of her goals now is to teach people how not to fall prey to scams.
“If I had one thing to tell people, it would be: Don’t trust a voice on the phone. Ask questions. If you have trouble remembering, write them down. … It’s a horrible thing. To this day, I don’t understand it. I wish I could go back in time. That’s the one thing I would change.”